Strange Sally Diamond

Yes, the eponymous protagonist of Liz Nugent’s new crime mystery, Strange Sally Diamond, is strange. And for good reason. Like Nita Prose’s The Maid (another excellent book), this is a protagonist with some unspecified cognitive difference, and in both books it is interesting to see how the authors create a consistent and believable character who processes information in a quirky way.

Sally lives a mile outside a small village in Ireland’s sparsely populated Roscommon County. Alone with her father since her Mum’s death, Sally is in her early forties and has become her father’s caretaker. She’s not one bit social, but because of his illness, she’s had to go into the village to do errands and buy groceries. She keeps her interactions with the villagers to a minimum by pretending to be deaf.

When her Dad dies, she takes literally his jocular advice, ‘Just put me out with the bins,’ and attempts to cremate him in an incinerator barrel. To Sally’s surprise, this brings the police and the media and the merely curious to her door. Sally’s chance to keep others out of her life are now zero. She is constantly learning and fine-tuning how to relate to all of them. No real-life experience has taught her there should be a funeral and that backyard cremation wouldn’t go. When others arrange a funeral, she wears a red-sequined beret, because Dad said it was “for special occasions.”

Sally’s steep learning curve may make you think about the demands of society differently. How much we take for granted in our relations with other people and the world around us!

Sally’s biological mother, Denise Norton, was kidnapped at age eleven and held captive for almost sixteen years by a misogynistic psychopath named Conor Geary. By doling out devastating new revelations about this experience and its tragic aftermath, chapter by chapter, Nugent keeps the story tension high. It’s a fine, well-paced piece of storytelling.

Denise was finally found (thanks to a burglar) with a young daughter—Sally—and their captor fled. Under psychiatric care, Denise committed suicide. The people Sally first thought of as ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ were the physician and psychiatrist who cared for her and Denise. At first their adopting her seems a kindness, but I found the psychiatrist father to be every bit as controlling as Conor Geary, at least in a psychological sense. That need for control, who has it, who doesn’t, is a powerful theme here. And Sally isn’t the only child who was affected.

Nugent writes with sincere compassion for the lives warped by Geary—not just his kidnap victims but their children, their siblings left behind, and the parents who never knew what happened to them. Although Strange Sally Diamond is a smooth read, one that propels you forward, it offers a lot to think about, and it won’t leave you quickly.

Popcorn Weekend: Living and Turn Every Page

Two recent films that couldn’t be more different arrive at the same place. In both, men near the ends of their careers are determined to do the work necessary to leave behind something of importance. They prove that being a beautiful person is not age-related!

Living is a feature film, with a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, directed by Oliver Hermanus (trailer). Rodney Williams, London bureaucrat in a do-nothing department, is portrayed by Bill Nighy. If you’re a Nighy fan like me, that’s all you need to know to want to see this film, but there are plenty of other reasons to do so. Given a fatal diagnosis, Williams is inspired to do something with his life, to leave behind something meaningful.

The film is more charming than sad, and pretty frustrating with its apt demonstration of how resistant to change bureaucracies are! Even so, it’s possible to make a positive difference in at least some people’s lives. Watch for the dinner scene in which Williams’s daughter-in-law desperately tries to signal her husband to confront his father about what she considers his questionable behavior.

The story closely follows that of a 1952 Japanese film, Ikuru, and you can see how its emphasis on conformity would work well in that culture.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 96%; audiences 86%.

Turn Every Page is a documentary that any historian or author or editor is bound to love (trailer). Subtitled The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb, it tells the story of the half-century of collaboration between author Robert Caro—The Power Broker(now in its 17th printing) and the LBJ biographies, starting with The Path to Power—and his renowned editor, Robert Gottlieb. They were young men when they started; they’re elderly now, and this film about them is fascinating from beginning to end.

The film was made by Gottlieb’s daughter, Lizzie, and she never puts a foot wrong. She brings in other voices, she takes a trip to Texas, she uses maps of New York City to show how Robert Moses’s massive public works projects shaped New York, and when she showed some of the famous books Gottlieb has edited, I sat there saying, “I read that. Read that. Yep. Another one.” In a classroom discussion of The Power Broker, a teacher says we can’t know whether New York would be a better place without Moses’s projects, but it definitely would be a different place.

After dwelling on Moses’s kind of power, Caro undertook a study of political power at the national level and chose Lyndon Baines Johnson as his exemplar. Because when doing his research he “turns every page,” he uncovered information about this period that was previously unknown, about which lesser writers might say, “We’ll never know whether . . .” Now, for better or worse, we do.

Caro takes a novelist’s interest in the impact the exercise of power had on people—from those in the way of one of Moses’s new expressways to the people who supported Johnson’s political wheeling and dealing. In one of the documentary’s more amusing moments, he and Gottlieb, preparing for a grueling day of editing, must scour the Knopf offices to come up with—a pencil.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 96%; audiences 100%!

Tent Revival: Online Theater

Last Monday was the premiere of Tent Revival, a play by Majkin Holmquist directed by Teddy Bergman, as part of the series, Bard at the Gate. This is the third season for the series, which is co-curated by Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel and McCarter Theatre Center Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson, and co-produced by McCarter. Its goal is to create an audience for groundbreaking new plays that are “ambitious, quirky, and smart.

Tent Revival takes place in rural Kansas, 1957. The strong cast is led by Robert (played by Michael Crane), a farmer unable to make a go of it who turns to preaching. He’s strongly supported by his wife, Mary (Lisa Joyce), injured in an auto accident a decade earlier. Daughter Ida (Susannah Perkins) is the most interesting of the three, because she’s the most up-front with her doubts. She isn’t sure she buys into all the professions of faith and “Jesus is sitting right beside me,” and spends her Sunday mornings roaming the farm fields looking for snakes to have as pets. When Mary, in a frenzy of defending her husband from doubters, rises from her wheelchair and walks again, Ida’s convinced. For a time.

Someone who doesn’t share these doubts is the extremely vulnerable teenager, Joann (Allegra Heart). Joann willingly fakes a stutter so Robert can “heal” her, in order to convince people he truly has a gift. In addition to the four cast members mentioned, a fifth actor (Amy Staats) takes on multiple roles, usually as a skeptic.

The crowds grow, the pressure mounts, the demand for healing intensifies. When Mary relapses and ends up back in her wheelchair, Bob tries to exile her from the show (bad publicity). But he has to produce something to satisfy the crowds of people coming to be healed, and he talks Ida into snake-handling—with rattlesnakes. Mary has other ideas and decides to test Robert’s faith. Is it real? The ending is ambiguous, but I think he does have faith, just not in the way the tent revival audience believes.

The performances were filmed in a particular way—in closeups projected side-by-side, in color and, when Ida is narrating rather than participating in a scene, in black and white. This gives a feeling of action in what is a minimalist production. You can access Tent Revival (video on demand) through Broadway on Demand.

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Newman and Woodward: Acting Up!

This week in New Plaza Cinema’s entertaining lecture series on the movies and the people who made them, film historian and author Max Alvarez talked about the 50-year creative partnership between Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, illustrated with numerous film clips. More than half a century ago (can this be true?) Paul Newman became my favorite actor with his portrayal of Ari Ben Canaan in Exodus, a status he cemented the next year in The Hustler.

So many of his great roles, were in the late 1950s and 60s (Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof [1958], Hud in Hud, Luke in Cool Hand Luke, Butch in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Henry Gondorff in The Sting, Frank Galvin in The Verdict [1982]). Just the films mentioned garnered him twenty-five major award nominations, including seven Academy Award Best Actor nominations. Yet he didn’t receive an Oscar until 1986, for reprising his Hustler role as Fast Eddie Felson in The Color of Money.

While Newman was a dominant screen presence in those years, Woodward stayed more in the background, keeping her career secondary to her family role. (The couple has three daughters.) Nevertheless, accolades came early for Woodward. She won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her performance in The Three Faces of Eve (1957). Over his career, Newman acted in 57 feature films, and she in 27. They worked together—as actors, or with him directing—on 14 projects.

Newman and Woodward both arrived in New York in 1951, and, two years later, they met as understudies in Josh Logan’s Picnic, which gave Newman his Broadway debut. He arrived after Yale Drama School, and she, five years younger, studied in New York with Sanford Meisner in the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. She never completely lost her Georgia accent. Though they both worked on Broadway, they’re best known for films. As Alvarez emphasized, in that era, Hollywood was willing to produce a fair amount of serious adult drama, many based on literary works, which was lucky for them.

Alvarez found screen tests of each of them with James Dean for the 1955 film, East of Eden, based on the John Steinbeck novel. Judging by their tests, either or both of them might have been at least as good as Elia Kazan’s ultimate picks, Richard Davalos and Julie Harris. (Commentators frequently note that Dean’s untimely death opened up roles for Newman that otherwise might have gone to the then better-known actor.)

Newman and Woodward’s first film together was The Long, Hot Summer (1958)(trailer), based on William Faulkner’s stories. During filming, they became a couple. Newman, already married with three children, needed a divorce before he and Woodward could wed.

Other notable collaborations for the pair were 1959’s From the Terrace (trailer), based on a John O’Hara novel. It was filmed mostly in New York to accommodate Newman’s Broadway acting schedule for Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth. In 1961, they appeared together in Paris Blues (trailer), with Newman on the trombone and Sidney Poitier on the saxophone. A jazz aficionado says Newman faked it pretty well. Newman directed Woodward in the low-budget Rachel, Rachel (1968)(interview with Newman and trailer), based on a novel by Margaret Laurence. The movie turned out to be both an artistic and surprise financial success. It was Newman’s directorial debut and led to his winning the Golden Globe and NY Film Critics Circle Award. Woodward also won those two awards. He also directed her in a 1986 film version of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (full movie), which features a young John Malkovich (worth seeing for that alone!).

Their final film together was the 1990 Merchant/Ivory production, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (trailer), about a sheltered Kansas City couple who must grapple with the profound social changes surrounding World War II. To keep costs down, the film was shot in real locations in Kansas City and received donations of costumes and props, modest and not-so: 100 gallons of paint from Benjamin Moore and a dozen Tiffany lamps and 1930s paintings from a local law firm, for example. Woodward’s performance was especially praised. The New York Times said “there is a reserve, humor and desperation in their characterizations that enrich the very self-conscious flatness of the narrative terrain around them.”

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Death of a Salesman

Having missed the opportunity to see a performance of Death of a Salesman in Portuguese last spring in Lisbon (I’m kidding), we eagerly bought tickets for the current Broadway version. It stars Wendell Pierce as Willie Loman and Sharon D Clarke as his wife, Linda. Both could not be better and gave affecting, memorable performances. Pierce was nominated for an Olivier award for his performance in a London production of the play.

I know I’ve seen this play several times, including when I was much younger, possibly even as a college student, as Arthur Miller had roots in Ann Arbor. The current version at the Hudson Theater offers whole new vistas of meaning for me now. I remember it being talky and, frankly, a little dull, but it shimmers with life in this version, almost as much as Willie shakes trying to pull his thoughts together. The themes of life disappointments, deluded parenting, and coming to the end of a road, all mean more to the older me, I suppose.

The New Yorker review wasn’t wild about the performances of Khris Davis as Biff Loman and McKinley Belcher III as his brother, Happy, young men in their late twenties. I found them energetic and mesmerizing. They carry out the stylized movements signaling events from their teens with verve. André De Shields appears as the ghost of Ben, haunting his younger brother Willie with his tales of brilliant success in “the diamond mines.” His mantra that all it took was hard work is a lesson that has failed Willie.

Director Miranda Cromwell has subtly updated the production of this 70-plus-year-old gem. There are a few references to its original era, but you don’t feel trapped in a time capsule. Plus, it fits the Black cast so well, you may think the Lomans should have been cast with Black actors all along. Certainly, some ways in which Willie is treated become freighted with new meanings.

So glad I saw it; you will be too!

Indelible Film Memories

The creative partnership between Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro has produced some of the most memorable cinema of the last half-century. From Mean Streets (1973) to Raging Bull (1980) to The Irishman (2019), their movies “can be hard to watch and hard to shake off,” said film historian Max Alvarez. Alvarez presented his survey “DeNiro and Scorsese: An Intense Collaboration” last week as part of New Plaza Cinema’s highly entertaining lecture series.

Scorsese, a born New Yorker, grew up in Little Italy in a family where all four of his grandparents were immigrants from near Palermo, Sicily. Scorsese wasn’t a particularly good student, but he was fascinated by the movies. He has said the only college he could get into was NYU, where he eventually attended the Tisch School of the Arts. There, he started making short films, and his first feature-length film—1967’s Who’s That Knocking on My Door—signaled the start of another long-time collaboration, this one with Harvey Keitel.

Robert DeNiro, also a lifelong New Yorker, has a more ethnically diverse background. He was the only child of two artists, who separated when he was two. He grew up in the Greenwich Village and Little Italy neighborhoods, in what Alvarez called a “cultured and cultivated household.” He was sent to private schools and knew many artists of all types, who were friends of his parents, including Anaïs Nin, Tennessee Williams, and Henry Miller. He began studying acting in high school and went on to study at the Stella Adler school.

Interestingly, despite the cultural touchstones many of their movies have become, few of them actually made money. The exceptions were Taxi Driver (1976)and Goodfellas (1989). By the time that was made, DeNiro had already won his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Godfather Part II fifteen years earlier.

Scorsese’s films pioneered many techniques common today; the pop music soundtracks, the profanity that was uncommon previously, the film noir touches, especially in lighting, through the introduction of fast editing and CGI (used to de-age DeNiro in the early scenes of The Irishman, for example).

But even as he tried different projects—a musical, a comedy or two, a religious drama, a couple of psychological thrillers, a costume drama—and even though he’s worked with many other top stars—including Daniel Day-Lewis, Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Paul Newman—he keeps coming back to DeNiro. Maybe it’s that trust that allows the frequent use of improvised (or improvised, then polished) dialog that you sometimes see, as in Goodfellas. Scorsese says that DeNiro is gifted at bringing humanity to “characters who ordinarily would be villains.”

For a treat: Watch this YouTube video of Scorsese and DeNiro have dinner with Don Rickles (who played a straight role in Scorsese’s movie Casino, shown in the photo alongside).This filmed dinner was Rickles’s last performance.

Tales of the Red River of the North

Flannery O’Connor’s book Everything That Rises Must Converge comes to mind whenever life brings seemingly random stuff together around a common theme. It happens all the time. Recently, I’ve read two books about the same patch of land on the Red River of the North, which forms most of the border between Minnesota and North Dakota, then flows into Canada (pictured). You can’t even say that I gravitated to these geographically linked books out of personal interest—one was a pick of my book club and the other a gift. Both by prize-winning authors; both great.

The mystery Murder on the Red River, first of a series of three by Marcie R. Rendon, features 19-year-old Cash Blackbear who lives alone in Fargo, North Dakota, and drives trucks for local farmers. Her lifestyle choices leave room for improvement: too much beer, lots of cigarettes. She earns extra money playing competitive pool, often with her romantic partner, a married man. Playing pool isn’t destructive, per se, of course, but being out late at night in honky-tonk bars where the pool-playing events are held does expose Cash to certain dangers.

When she was a child, she fell under the watchful eye of Sheriff Wheaton, who can recognize an at-risk kid when he sees one. They are still friends. He thinks she’s the smartest person he knows and she has intuition so strong, it produces visions. When an Indian man turns up dead in a field, she helps the sheriff investigate, and an engrossing story is launched.

Multiple award-winner Louise Erdrich’s book The Sentence is wonderfully rich and evocative, not only of the cultural background and nuanced relationship of her main characters Tookie, an Ojibwe tribe member, and her husband Pollux, a Potawatomi. The ways—big and small—that they integrate tribal teachings with their present lives is fascinating. At the book’s outset, Tookie commits a crime that takes her to prison (one of the meanings of the book’s title), and the first chapter begins, “While in prison, I received a dictionary.” With that juxtaposition of unlikely elements, you just have to keep reading!

The dictionary was sent to her by a former teacher, and when Tookie’s sentence is commuted, the teacher hires her to work in her bookstore. (Erdrich herself owns a bookstore in Minneapolis, Birchbark Books). This story takes place in Minneapolis, with the occasional reference to Red River places and people—all very fresh in my mind, thanks to Marcie Rendon.

The bookstore’s most annoying customer dies on All Souls’ Day 2019, and the story takes place over the following year, one full of incident. In the wider world, there’s the pandemic, with employees having to figure out how to work, how to keep the business going, even how to live, in the face of that upheaval. A couple of months in, George Floyd is murdered, and social isolation seems not the right way to go, when conscience urges people onto the streets. Aggressive police tactics have affective the Indian community too, as the bookstore employees are quick to point out.

Tookie’s own life has its complications. The dead customer haunts the store, especially her. The staff try any number of stratagems to persuade the poor woman to go. Will they ever get rid of her? At the other end of the life cycle, Pollux’s daughter has come home, bringing her baby, and Tookie is smitten.

It’s a lovely book, and one where my interest never flagged. Can recommend this Red River excursion to whole-heartedly.

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Florence and Mojo

These two short plays by pioneering Black playwright Alice Childress are now on stage in a riveting production at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, under the direction of Lindsay Smiling. Premiering October 26, the show runs through November 13.

Childress wrote, produced, and published plays for forty years. Born in Charleston, she said “Coming out of the Jim Crow experience was what I and many others had to do,” and the first of the plays (Childress’s first play), Florence (1949), addresses this experience directly. It takes place in a small-town train station waiting room in the South. The room is divided into two sections, alike except for the “Colored Only” and “Whites Only” signs and the segregated bathrooms. Oh, and the whites are offered a battered standing ashtray.

Mama (played by April Armstrong), is waiting for a train to take her to New York to check on her daughter, an aspiring actress, whom Mama fears is near destitute. Her younger daughter Marge (Billie Wyatt) tries to persuade Mama to bring her sister home. After Marge leaves, a white woman, Mrs. Carter (Carey Van Driest) appears, and the two talk. The ingrained attitudes and structures of racism are revealed, made even more painful when Mrs. Carter makes a gesture she intends as kind, which is anything but.

Mojo (1970), the longer of the two plays, takes place twenty years later, near the tail-end of the U.S. Civil Rights movement. The setting is the mid-century modern Manhattan apartment of Teddy (Chris White). He’s preparing to meet his white girlfriend and make arrangements for a poker game he feels confident he’ll win. As he’s off-stage, a woman opens the door with a key. She’s laden with a suitcase and shopping bag of gifts. Clearly, she plans to stay a while.

Irene (played brilliantly by Darlene Hope) is Teddy’s ex-wife, and through the sparring between them, their backgrounds and secrets gradually emerge. When Renie divulges how she looked for the face of her lost daughter in every child she saw, Hope’s intensity brought tears to my eyes.

Childress was raised in Harlem by her grandmother, who encouraged her to write and challenged her to focus on people struggling to get by. She does exactly that in these two plays. She creates especially complex female characters in both Mama and Irene.

It would be interesting to know how today’s Black audiences regard Irene and Teddy’s attitudes toward the Civil Rights movement. They speak as if they are indifferent to it, yet in the two decades between the stories, much had changed and much hadn’t. In the fifty years since Mojo was written, you could say the same.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online.

The Narrator

The new Audible Original crime thriller, The Narrator by KL Slater, makes sly meta-fiction use of the audio medium. Two narrators—Clare Corbett and Kristin Atherton—read the story of Philippa Roberts, best-selling author of nine novels about police detective Jane Tower, and Eve Hewitt, the woman who has brought all nine novels to audio life. In an early chapter you learn that Philippa has disappeared—apparently kidnapped, but no ransom demand has been received. The publishing world is alight with rumors.

Ten months later, the attitudes of her agent, her editor, and the head of the publishing company—Harris-Lasson—toward the disappearance provide a mostly cynical look at the competing agendas in the publishing industry. The only person who seems to have Philippa’s best interests at heart is Eve, the narrator. While you may find some of these characters a little over-the-top (the agent, especially), their actions support the notion of a cutthroat industry in which, maybe, the worst actually has happened.

When Philippa’s wife Fleur discovers the manuscript for a tenth Jane Tower thriller hidden in their attic, Harris-Lasson, to a person, is overjoyed. The high-profile mystery surrounding Philippa’s fate will undoubtedly rocket sales of the new book to stratospheric heights. And, the publisher wants Eve, who has always been the voice of the Jane Tower books, to narrate. She’s overjoyed as well, with a chance to relaunch her career.

Eve is sent an original copy of the new book and has begun to read it. She is rather surprised to find it deviates from previous characterizations of Jane and the minutia of her backstory. In the recording studio, she’s given a different copy, and some of the more blatant discrepancies have been fixed. She’s asked to delete the original from her computer and not to tell anyone about the editing that was necessary—a red flag if there ever was one.

It doesn’t take long for Eve to wonder whether the still-missing Philippa was making these awkward errors because she’s trying to send a message. Perhaps even a clue to where Philippa is? A casual reader might miss it, but not someone like Eve.

Eve will try to find out. She begins to ask unwelcome questions. It turns out quite a few people might want to do Philippa harm. And Eve too, apparently. Author Slater deftly expands the list of possible suspects—a super-fan, former friends, former spouses, even Fleur herself—leaving you wondering whether anyone actually liked Philippa. Still, it’s a bit of a stretch to believe so many of these people would actually talk to Eve about the author and their thoughts on her disappearance.

If you’re tempted to rank the suspects most likely to have targeted Philippa, the ones most likely to be targeting Eve are not quite the same. This mismatch deepens the story’s mysteries and heightens its tension. The ending seems a bit of a rush, with a hint of What Just Happened? But on the whole, the plot is strong, with well-placed clues and nicely developed red herrings.

Narrators Corbett and Atherton handle the voices of their respective characters well, across genders and ages. There’s no difficulty distinguishing among the key characters, and the story moves along briskly. If it were a print novel, it would be a page-turner, packing a lot into a little over eight hours! Well worth a listen.

Order here from Amazon.

The Wolves

Photo Credit: © T Charles Erickson Photography

On stage at Princeton, NJ’s McCarter Theatre Center through Sunday, October 16, is the Sarah DeLappe play, The Wolves, directed by McCarter artistic director Sarah Rasmussen. Among its several award nominations, The Wolves was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2017.

“The Wolves” is the team nickname for a girls’ high school soccer team, and you see them in warm-ups and post-game chatter. As in any group of nine teenage girls, there’s a lot of talk, a lot of overlapping conversation, and a lot of feeling each other out and jockeying for status. The girls are identified only by their player numbers, DeLappe says, because she wants to emphasize the team as an organism, and thinks of their involvement as a kind of warfare, with “a bunch of young women who are preparing for their soccer games” instead of battle.

But of course, it’s the individual girls who stand out, and the cast does an excellent job at creating distinctive personalities—not just through the dialog, but also body language, voice, the whole package. Much as the girls want to be integral to this team, not everyone fits in. And some who think they do, don’t. If you remember high school at all, this can be painfully realistic.

The girls do more than gossip. They also engage in halting discussions of the news of the day. The trial of leaders in Pol Pot’s regime, for example. Oops, now the whistle blows and they’re off. Trying to connect with the realities of other lives and places is a lifelong challenge. The whistle of quotidian demands blows for each of us.

On the whole, I enjoyed it, and the scenic design by Junghyun Georgia Lee and lighting design by Jackie Fox put you right in harsh glare of an indoor stadium.

For tickets, contact the box office online.